News 18th Feb 2021

A Plan for Action - Progress on reducing corruption risks in local government planning decisions in England?

Alex Runswick

Senior Advocacy Manager

Alex is responsible for advocacy to the UK Parliament and Government on money laundering and political corruption. Previously Alex was Director of Unlock Democracy. She has over fifteen years’ experience of parliamentary and grassroots campaigning on a wide range of democratic reform and anti-corruption issues including lobbying transparency, party funding, the revolving door, freedom of information, House of Lords reform, electoral reform, and participatory democracy. Alex is also Co-Chair of the East End Women’s Museum, England’s only museum dedicated to women’s history

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Related Publication

Permission Accomplished

Publication

This report focusses on specific corruption risks in major planning decisions, an area where there is often a large amount of money at stake. It is also very contentious, with many new developments resulting in a net loss of social and genuinely affordable housing, which in many areas are in short supply.

To understand what could undermine openness in the planning process and what local authorities are doing to stop this, we have collected evidence from across England. Although there are some examples of good practice, generally the results make for a worrying read.

Unminuted, closed-door meetings with developers and excessive hospitality undoubtedly undermine confidence in the planning process, yet too many local authorities have weak rules to stop this from happening. Even fewer councils have control measures for major conflicts of interest, with far too many decision-makers also working for developers on the side. Moreover, when councillors behave badly, there are no clear or meaningful sanctions available to councils that could act as an effective deterrent against serious misconduct by them or others in the future.

To address these issues we propose ten practical solutions, none of which are beyond the means of those who need to implement them. All reinforce existing guidance and good practice recommended by anti-fraud and corruption initiatives here and internationally. Some even reflect existing practice in particular parts of the UK, such as Scotland.

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Planning decisions are always some of the most contentious and difficult aspects of local government. From small extensions to major developments, tensions can run high. With larger projects there are often staggering amounts of money at stake, as well as the potential loss of communal spaces and social housing. When navigating these issues, the last thing a council wants or needs is damage to confidence in the integrity of the process. 

Yet this is what we have seen time and time again in recent years. Questions arising about the cosiness of relationships between those authorising major decisions and those seeking them. Allegations of improper gifts and hospitality that might sway an application. Lobbying behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny. Acts like these can easily give rise to the perception, or reality, that those elected as representatives of the people are putting private interests first. 

In theory, councils in England have the power to tailor-make safeguards against impropriety in the planning process, yet as our recent report Permission Accomplished shows, many of these are not up to scratch. When matched against good practice on a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being terrible and 100 top marks), thirty-eight out of the 50 local authorities we looked at less than 50. This raises serious concerns. 

When conflicts of interest go unchecked, when meetings with developers are withheld from public view, and when decision-makers are allowed to work with developers on the side, it is perhaps unsurprising that local residents sometimes feel they are powerless against well-resourced and well-connected vested interests. 

Thankfully, some authorities recognise the seriousness of this problem. Since we published our report in July 2020, we have engaged with three different councils across England to try and help them up their game. These open, honest and constructive engagements are perhaps reasons to be cautiously optimistic. 

 

East Devon 

 

Following a scandal that engulfed the authority eight years ago, East Devon District Council have updated their rules on councillors’ engagement with developers at the pre-application stage for major projects. Their new protocol on Members Advisory Panels ensures there is clarity about the purpose of these discussions, they are all arranged via formal channels, and, crucially, both the meetings and all related correspondence will be published if the scheme proceeds. East Devon has also created the Portfolio of Democracy and Transparency role, which is believed to be the first of its kind. At our online Big Tent Festival event last year, Cllr Paul Millar, who is the first to hold this new post, spoke about why the council had created this role and the importance of this issue to his local residents.

 

City of London 

 

Councillors in the City of London cited our report in debates about the need to improve their planning processes. Whilst this authority is not one of those featured in our research, on request from one of its members, we produced a bespoke briefing outlining how it could improve its safeguards against impropriety, using the same methodology. This highlighted areas where the council meets good practice as well as where changes are needed. 

We found that while the City of London is either meeting good practice or is close to doing so in some respects, there are areas where improvement is needed. We sent our briefing to the Lord Mayor and key officials, who responded by saying they are currently working on a new standards arrangement and will be reviewing the code of conduct; however, they claim they are ‘...confident that we are fully compliant with all relevant legal requirements, which of course we keep under regular review.’ Other councillors feel there is still room for improvement and they are continuing to use our research in their campaigning

 

Liverpool 

 

Liverpool City Council has been in the spotlight recently, and for all the wrong reasons. With the Labour Party selecting a new Liverpool City Council Mayoral candidate, Dan Carden MP recently used this opportunity to write to all those seeking to stand and ask them to endorse our recommendations. Liverpool was one of the authorities included in the original research, and it did not score well. Out of a possible 100 marks, it received less than 40. 

All three of the prospective Labour candidates have now endorsed our recommendations, and Wendy Simon, the interim City Mayor, has confirmed that it will be discussed by the Planning Committee next month. Cllr Richard Kemp, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Liverpool City Council Mayor has been in touch and confirmed that he supports our proposals. We have also contacted the Liverpool Conservative Association and Liverpool Green Party to ask for their support, and look forward to hearing their response soon. 

 

Where next? 

For any councillors or mayoral candidates in England whose local authority was not included in our original research, we have created a template 10-point plan that, if implemented properly, can be used to strengthen safeguards and reduce the risks of perceived or actual corruption in the planning process. All of these ten proposals are within authorities’ power, and can help prevent behaviour that can have damaging and lasting effects on their residents’ trust. Making these simple changes can critical in empowering communities and revitalising local democracy up and down the UK.